How to Kill a Category
“It is time the stone made an effort to flower,
time unrest had a beating heart.
It is time it were time.
It is time.”
~~ Paul Celan, Corona
There are hints dropped along the way, as a particularly astute gardener might notice on a high summer afternoon: her plants have in a flashing moment reached the unnameable summit, and she senses a descent through the brilliant crest of leaf or petal, smell of autumn in the root.
When does it arrive, this crossing-over? How can one awaken to the fact of one’s own somnulance, and yet remain anesthetized? It is an act, or a process (and is a process a series of acts, stop-time, or does there exist a secret fluidity one cannot name or see or grasp….) of being patient, doctor, weeping relative, pain specialist, all at one time. And then the roles break apart from the pressure of their own deceptions and fear…. what remains? What remains?
I think of Paul Celan, especially these days, the days of loss so heavy it sinks beneath the net – there is no pulling this grief toward the light. The clown who dances on a prince’s grave, immigrants treated as vermin, flirtations with weapons so stupidly lethal we might be erased like chalk. Despair, despair, despair… language the only respite, which reveals itself, always, as Celan knew so intimately, as failed experiment.
His suicide, after so many years digging through memories unbearable – his mother, who taught him as a child to hold with reverence the language of her murderers, slaughtered at the camps, his father dead from disease – he raised to the light delicate insights, carved from the toughest brutality, that defined and gave shape to what amounted to a New World, the life of After: after the War, after the Camps, after the sight of what modern humans can do to one another. He stood, or crouched, and faced the blood-strewn storm, and gave us a language to surround, occasionally comprehend, an unimaginable context.
And then he turned from it; his suicide, to me, is a denial of language, a denial, finally, of one’s capacity for strength and endurance. He haunts me, as I see the cracks grow in my own psyche and form: my own suffering, the suffering of our brutalized grand Earth, of refugees of women of children, of my own children – when does strength become a facade holding up a long dead corpse, false scaffolding of Self?
And it has always been thus: language is an illusion, it is a mere category of invention, a graceful artifice at best, a lie of hope at worst. We need it. But do we? There are sculptures in India of Shiva wearing a necklace of skulls. Each skull represents a letter from Sanskrit, its connectedness represents finality, an impenetrable death. Perhaps the death is a metaphor, and when one accepts our addiction to language (the search to be other than Other) there exists a passing through to peace, internal strength, and acceptance. Or perhaps the death is literal, and when one realizes the false promise of our needed interconnectedness the soul fades, the body slouches to the highest bridge.
I am in the shadows of knowing-not~knowing. Divorce, the disability of my daughter, the stolen Presidency, all our rage and ignorance that seem to only grow with the years, despite our intellectual sophistication: it is too much, and yet we endure, sometimes even with a winking glimpse of Joy, Ananda, Bliss-state.
I do wonder what Mr. Celan would make of the white supremacist in the White House, what he would make of our astonishingly stupid forms of communication: twitter, Face Book, email, text. None of it human, none of it even language, really.
When I stumbled upon the full force of my ex-husband’s dislike of me, it was through the pathetic medium of text (the irony of the phrase – a text is rarely text), oddly not far from Celan’s home. It was a moment so filled with horror that life became, for a second or a minute or a day, electric with Pain. Perhaps it is this sort of electricity, the sort made of grief and struggle and rage, that spurs an artist on, despite the dullness of depression nipping at his heels. And when the current fades to black… what remains?
grey-rose clouds climb
the shoulders of unseen light.
is either the result
or another name
as when energy
Night is like this:
diving into itself, tight ombre
knot of shade to shadow
to soot spilled
over flat meadow.
I have heard those
who rest their hands
upon the dead and dying
say that death comes
just before the dawn,
as if a body strained and
weary from the foreign effort
of its own leave-taking
cannot bear to witness
Dexter Filkins, divorce, eating disorders, free-form essay, history, imagery, Las Vegas gunman, Mos Def, motherhood, personal history, photography, poem within an essay, poetry, politics, suffering, Trump, Wallace Stevens, war
It is autumn. An unexpected solitude. Children, gone to play on the hills outside my mother’s summer cabin. Friends disappeared, for the most part, along with the marriage. The husband is an X, still so strange to pronounce. He’s been gone for centuries I think. My hands will grow to gnarled claws. Aloneness a relief, but hollow.
When I was young and first introduced to Plato (Formal as a King’s Ball, my gloved hand in his lined ancient paw), I was enthralled to the ring of Gyges and its power. Common questions: ethical limits, temptations of greed, the never ending invitation to live fully, exclusively, in realms of Id and desire. But also: what does it mean to exist unobserved? Then the questions become existential, not ethical, or enters a territory in which the two mix like tangled river beds.
A beautiful married woman becomes an aging divorced mother, wears that ring like a noose.
It is a living poem, for one to observe those who cannot or do not care to return one’s gaze. But as any fairy tale or moral philosopher will tell you, there are no creations given freely; something must die along the way.
This evening I went to a bar. I was loaded down with headphones and Thucydides and Dexter Filkins. My hair is short, no longer white-platinum, my eyes weary from days and days of toddler tears, sleepless nights. I drank vodka scented with lavender.
A birthday party of beautiful Korean women got louder at a nearby table. They had long hair and red lips and seemed like true friends. Next to me sat a couple enclosed in a womb of New Love. The woman’s skin changed by the minute, growing flushed, darker, her lips full. The bartender was out of a film: perfect skin and gold hair with a voice to match. I thought vividly of bedding him without telling him my name.
The once observed is now the observing. The wind blows against my bones. There is no cover, the little deceptions that were the great comfort of marriage, of youth, of babies and beauty and all the fecundity of children, family, husband – gone. There is no comfort. This is an evolving fact, if such a thing exists: a life without comforts can lead to infinite possibilities. Or at least a satisfied eccentricity.
Noisy solitude, nameless yearning.
And then I picked up Dexter Filkins. He knows something of bones, and strength, and pure observation. Fallujah, 2004, black night lit not by stars but artillery, advancing yard by blood-smeared yard. Kabul, before the U.S. invasion. Men and boys murdered, slowly, with showy imprecision, in reluctantly filled stadiums, orphans gathering by the dozens.
Orphans. I thought of this. The plural, that devastating s. Orphans. The heart twists, lurches to the unimaginable void of the word.
There are many types of solitude.
“I do not know which to prefer
The beauty of inflections
or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
or just after.”
– Wallace Stevens, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
I had just turned 18. My addiction to “thin” had just turned 8. To this day I adore the feel of my hip bones, and the sense of my spine emerging like some amphibious spiked creature when I bend at the waist. Deprivation, for some, is safety. The calm of fleshless limbs: so many of us know it, and only belittle the need without comprehending the benefit. Everyone wants for refuge.
Even if that refuge takes shape as its denial.
Speeding in a black sports car, leather jacket, cigarette permanently attached to bony fingers. The best friend circled her hand around my thigh. “Too much.”
I did not look. At her, at my thin (not enough) exposed leg.
And I said, “I cannot have anything extra. I want my life to be utterly spare. Clean.”
She curled her mouth in that charming, wise way she had, even in elementary school, and even now, all these decades later. “I understand,” she said. “I understand that.”
The sweetness of this brief memory arrives almost daily, finch at a windowsill. The irreplaceable understanding between girls… She still knows my interior, but our lives are lived far apart, territories rarely joined. And I’m still the girl who wants to roam, loveless but somehow safe, all through the world. Untouched.
Understanding. Necessary futility. Filters, mirrors, want, needs real, needs imagined. My husband (X) knew something of me. Didn’t he? Once we danced on a graveyard in Pennsylvania.
There are many types of understanding.
“And we are alive in amazing times
delicate hearts, diabolical minds
Revelations, hatred, love and war.
And more and more and more and more
and more of less than ever before…”
— Mos Def, Life in Marvelous Times
My life is a shadow.
The shadow moves, sometimes, but is for now changeless.
The stagnation will end when the shadow grows weary of itself.
Through brute foreign masculine strength I must ensure that the shadow is not replaced
by another one.
There are children who surround me. They are my own, of my own making, of my own
force – their faces reflect parthenogenetic antecedents that are both royal and primordial. X, in our case, never marked the spot.
They are part of the shadow, the poor small aliens. They are too beautiful in their grief, their anger and dis-connection. Look: they are blind. I weep to see their small fingers explore this new habitat.
Cruel cruel land: uninhabitable for a child’s evolution of dream and waking. “Catch Up” – catch up to our insanity, our anger, our incompetence, demands the warring lord and the deposed queen. Race through heartbreaks that should be slow, and I will catch you as you leap, though there are but two arms now, weak from the lifting.
Our Earth has a sickness, a fever. Only she will know its resolution.
This morning: I am in a park crowded with dogs and sleek running women.
Visitations. Sometimes they linger, and some unnecessary part of me is killed off. Surgical. Often it is so quick I don’t know the pain.
See the slaughters infinite: Duterte, the Rohingya, Boko Haram in North Nigeria, the new (old) right wing power in Germany. The ruin of Syria, elegant Damascus, with its scholars and long boulevards; see the ancient stones bombed to ruin, while the North chokes on toxic air. Once women wore miniskirts in Kabul, and they lit cigarettes after dropping their children at school.
Trump sitting happy rich and stupid on his throne, this ugly spoiled child with a new toy. He brought his crayons to work, made his House White again. His eyes are small as a sunning lizard from the years of counting, hate, and keeping secret score. Power is an Etch-a-Sketch, and he will erase the wisdom and grace of the Black man who lived there once, in a time long, long ago….
A madman sits atop a hotel, aims his gun(s), watches the bodies fall like puppets. He loves the lights on the Strip. American life is a video game, thrilling wildly to itself and numb, all at once.
Stillness. A rare visit now – snow leopard heavy on a branch – it vanishes before the mind can capture it. Imprint. This stillness brings a small gift. A man, just a man, sitting in a clearing. Whittling. Blackbirds overhead. A man. Silver glinting blade, tiny, efficient. Quick hard fingers. I cannot see what lies between hand and knife, patient on a table. I see only, for that flashing moment, this quiet man, silent in his creation. It is an act of discarding, and a bringing forth. Then he is gone.
I am looking at pictures of Palmyra.
The astonishing before
the devastated after.
If Palmyra was a ruin –
uncut jewel in the palm
of time –
what is it now?
The agora has been raided, again.
Palm trees looped the city
like a dancer’s arms
the smell of lemons
drifted to the theater
and the chorus lifted
its curtain of sound:
and warning –
Upon my curled legs
a small child sleeps,
lashes long as a peacock’s
tail, fine and glistening
It is midnight.
Her breath steady
as a tidepool
and her small body
(all scuffed knee and rounded belly)
is a living shadow of Love,
Divine and Perfect
as a memory.
I read this:
our skin, the flesh underneath,
is imbued with stardust,
and once a child arrives
in her mother’s womb
it is the same: cells within
cells, so the blood remembers
what the mind cannot.
Within the dead
shines the deathless particles,
and the secret arc
Aramean to Greek,
Roman to Arab,
mother to child,
How to Live
(a short song for Aretha Franklin and departures)
There is no wisdom. Neither an Offering nor a Seeking – no –
More a wonder
that is a river buried close to Earth’s center,
sliding in slow speed over sediment unseen and unnoticed
sunken warm water trudging, soldiering, through air thick as onyx, immune
to light no matter how dim.
When you least expect it
or want it
your Earth is lanced, the wound empty
and hollow beneath your slender feet.
Either your body or your gaze or what might even be called,
if you dare,
fall to the river,
the Earth-light white and blinding, and then the farther you fall
the more grey the air becomes;
even then your eye
or your Soul
never adjusts to your stupid precipitous failure
to dance lightly with and within
of the Sun.
And no Artemis will save you.
And no Hermes will pity you.
And Jesus turns his hand, but only because he must.
You. Not a mother with milk in her breast.
You. Not a Lover or stricken maid on her knees
begging her keep on an ebony leash.
You. Not the Seer of Souls or Suns over nameless horizons.
You plummet to the river
after the briefest shock and gasp
The marksman, the poet, and the mapmaker
together saw a sliver of light at dusk. The first
took aim, the second found its name, and the third
on hard ground drew 5 circles, and then made the 5th
a shadow. “I remember every tree,” she said, “from here
to the new there, and back again. Draw it, you will create it.”
The poet kept her silence, feeding the moon to the night
as worlds arranged themselves in her throat.
The young marksman, thin as his own arrow,
his voice like fire at the cold lake’s edge, said:
“We’ll have a treasure hunt by the stream where
Dada once caught a dirty fish.” The poet’s eyes not
seeing but knowing. “X marks the spot.”
LSD with M
I do not remember which came first –
the storm of serotonin or the spring rain
that was first a soft dance and then
a stomping torrent and then a thundering flood.
The hopeful boys were there, trailing after you,
picking up the crumbs, turning scent to secrets.
I think even now, during slow days, fast years,
our faces turned to the West,
those boys remain boys
when they think of you
and your inviting laugh, impossible hair,
wild eyes blue as lupines
in the high mountain sun.
When the flashing joy took hold
and shook us out of the little sense we had
you grabbed my hand, or I grabbed yours,
and we tripped into the rain,
asphalt gleaming like satin ribbon.
“It happens in an instant. It is all one long day,
one endless afternoon, friends leave,
we stand alone on the shore.”
– James Salter
Low and quiet
the autumn sun,
and empty are the hills.
She had a dog, young, long-limbed;
her eyes were dark
as a new moon
her coat a priceless gold.
Puppy mill: these were her
An impure blood of greed,
factories of flesh and discarded
bitches gripped her veins
but did not enclose her heart.
Empty are the hills.
The young dog
and the young woman
run the hills
hours upon hours;
they know the land, the paths
where people linger
and how to avoid them.
The young woman
and the young dog –
one as un-
as the other
is chained –
Empty are the hills
and the emptiness
is, as she runs,
or an arrival
that will remain
even upon the approach.
The hills are more rain
than soil, the water
a silver weight in a low sky,
The sky is water,
and the curled leaves
of the aged oaks
frail fountains, all twisted edges,
The young dog’s paws –
large and crude
in the black-brown mud-
tread the heavy path
in strides too long
Her gaze traces the bounding body
tense with life, senseless sense
The completion of a life
lies in absence –
or is it a slow stubtracting –
palimpsest erased to abstracted
and the mind
as a winter branch.
Above the hill, hidden by the torrents,
a small hawk arcs
and dives through invisible waves.
— for Richard and Mary
The child’s right foot turns in as if seeking shelter when she walks,
especially when she holds her stuffed bear or my hand – really
to her one and the same –
her legs long, loose jointed
as her stories after school.
Dreamy, she is called, too often because that is
a word we use when we have no idea what might
constitute the content
of another’s mind. It is a lazy word
rather like the muscles (not) controlling her right foot.
It drags conversation along but lacks precision – –
At the huge store housed in a huge space selling huge boxes
of frozen fish and loaves of bread large enough
to feed many congregations of gatherers and fretful families
one sees in the tight glance, the convex spine and gripping fingers
that the more huge the market space
the smaller the heart becomes
until it is just a hurried accountant, keeping the books
or re-working them, the chambers closed to all
but its own blood –
An old man draped in a worn sweatshirt, round glasses fatigued from
the years and the accounting –
wanting nothing at all to do with a small aimless child –
by luckless rhythm aimed
his metal wheeling cargo,
and drummed it into the child’s new unfocused face.
Blood, blackened eye, blame – the hardening set in
as a potter’s glaze, stiffening the story into place – –
One afternoon I heard a parable
it went something like this:
there was a great rabbi who had many followers
he spoke of the Torah as love and making offerings of the self
to the unending ocean of compassion.
“Place the teachings on your heart,” he would say,
“Place the teachings of love on your heart.”
One day a student approached him and asked
“Why on the heart? Why not in the heart?”
“Ah,” he said, “we place the teachings over and over on the heart
so that one day
in the evening of your life
after many luckless calamities
your heart will break
and the teachings can fall in.”
Yes. Yes, I thought upon hearing this.
But the student did not ask
what happens if the heart breaks
all the way through
like a crystal glass cracked rim to stem
and then cannot hold
what it waited so long to be taught.